Jul 25, 2015

Men in Orbit


When I saw avant-garde jazz musician and all around ‘hipster renaissance man’ Jim Lurie for the very first time while watching his buddy Jim Jarmusch’s classic ‘buddy flick’ Down by Law (1986) well over a decade ago, my immediate instinctive reaction was to want to kick his ass and knock the perennially ‘tragically hip’ look off his relatively swarthy face, yet my view of him has changed somewhat since then after seeing him in other roles like the strip club manager/quasi-pimp in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) and as the inmate Greg Penders in the tastefully trashy HBO prison series Oz (1997-2003) and now I can actually watch him in films without getting the urge to cause his hospitalization. Indeed, one cannot look at someone as a totally insufferable pretentious twat who would dare to get high on LSD with his comrades and direct a film in his apartment about spaceflight involving the most ludicrously ‘lo-fi’ of science fiction scenarios. Indeed, for his second (he previously directed a short the same year entitled Hell Is You (1979)) and ultimately last film Men in Orbit (1979)—a largely plot-less and superficially experimental 45-minute anti-sci-fi Arte Povera that seems like it was assembled in a couple hours that might be best described as the Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) aka A Trip to the Moon of the Colab-sponsored No Wave Cinema movement—Lurie boldly went where no self-stylized hipster had gone before by pretending his dilapidated apartment could pass for outer-space, thus making the flick a great double feature with Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky (1982). Hopelessly hipster-esque in its innately ironical portrayal of burnout neo-bohemians as brave and adventurous men of science, the film was shot on Super-8 with an incredibly low but not surprising budget of $500, which Lurie managed to secure via a quite questionable insurance claim he made after staging a phoney robbery in his own apartment where his beloved saxophones were supposedly stolen. Considering that James Bidgood created a kaleidoscopic Uranian universe in his mere apartment for his high-camp queer masterpiece Pink Narcissus (1971) and Apollonian pornographic auteur Wakefield Poole achieved something nearly as grand with his experimental fag fuck flick Bijou (1972) long before Lurie assumedly thought he had a bright idea while stoned to make a film in his flat about a space trip where he and his comrade are actually tripping, Men in Orbit is in no way cinematically revolutionary and is ultimately more plot-less and, in turn, more pointless than the most static of Andy Warhol’s mostly botched pre-Morrissey cinematic experiments, yet it still has its charms as a sort of hyper hokey Super-8 abortion that demonstrates the inexplicable lows that those involved in the so-called ‘No Wave’ scene went to when it came to effortlessly defecating out what is nothing short of true disposable art. In fact, with the original film print being long lost, it was assumed for a period of time that Lurie's celluloid anti-love letter to true Aryan technological supremacy was forever lost, but a fittingly low-quality version of the work was eventually accidentally located at the end of a mislabeled 3/4" U-matic videotape that turned out to be compilation reel for a weekly Manhattan public access TV program called Red Curtain (1979-1983) and later released in 2012 as part of the offbeat sci-fi DVD set Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films From the Final Frontier. Needless to say, Men in Orbit will probably only appeal to Lurie fanboys, No Wave completists, and fanatical fans of lo-fi sci-fi. Admittedly, why I decided to take the plunge and actually watch the film is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but I have a suspicion that it was largely the result of me wanting to confirm my assumption that the No Wave scene was comprised of a collective of the most singularly lazy, decidedly derivative, and uniquely uncreative filmmakers that ever got together and formed a noted filmmaking movement. 

 In an assumed attempt to rationalize why Men in Orbit is so superlatively shitty and patently pointless, director Lurie stated in the fairly worthwhile documentary Blank City (2010) directed by French documentarian Celine Danhier regarding the film and the curious artistic philosophy of the No Wave movement, “I hid the fact that I knew how to play the saxophone from people…and I would make these movies because nobody was doing what they knew how to do. If you knew how to do something it was like, ‘No, no, no…you can’t have any technique.’ Technique was so hated. The painters were in bands, the musicians were painting or making films. I mean, nobody was doing what they knew how to do.” Undoubtedly, if the film has any real discernible technique, it was provided by British filmmaker turned painter James Nares (TV Faces, No Japs at My Funeral), who acted as the cinematographer of the film (notably, Lurie previously appeared as a culture-cringing Roman dandy who proclaims to be Jesus Christ in Nares’ sword-and-sandal No Wave epic Rome ’78 (1978)). Indeed, if there is any possible indication that Men in Orbit might be set in an atmosphere lacking in gravity like outer-pace, it is the result of Nares' oftentimes cockeyed and spastic ‘floating camera’ technique, which he achieved by standing on a ladder while hovering over Lurie and filmmaker Eric Mitchell as they less than triumphantly trip in their piece of shit makeshift spaceship. In fact, it would probably be more logical to credit Nares as the true director of the film and Lurie as simply the star, ‘co-writer’ (obviously, the film was completely improvised and had nothing resembling a real physical script), and musical composer. In fact, in an interview conducted by filmmaker and media artist Andrea Callard (who unwittingly “savedMen in Orbit from being lost forever after sending a tape featuring her own work and Lurie's film in one of the twenty-two boxes of materials she had given to New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections), Lurie would admitt, “I probably put more thought into the sound than the camera. And what James Nares did was more than brilliant, achieving a weightless quality by floating the camera, constantly, above us. It was shot in Super 8.” On top of that, Lurie more or less holds his co-star Mitchell responsible for forcing him to assemble the anti-NASA vanity piece in the first place, or as he also revealed to Callard, “The driving force behind all of this was Eric Mitchell, who basically demanded that everyone make a film. I doubt much would have happened without his unstoppable and sometimes annoying energy. He had an idea to open a theater using the films that we would all make.” Of course, as the innate incoherence and technical ineptness of Men in Orbit—a work that seems like the director’s half-hearted attempt at making a film with the same structure as the discordant degenerate jazz he composes—surely demonstrates, Lurie is at his best when doing virtually nothing like creating preposterously pretentious facial expressions and poses in his buddy’s films and not when assaulting the art of cinema by laughably attempting to degenerate it into the filmic equivalent of freeform jazz. 

 Notably, Lurie has become a recluse of sorts over the past decade or so because he has suffered debilitating neurological problems as a result of chronic Lyme disease, which was only further compounded by the fact that he had to leave the rotten Big Apple because an unhinged six-foot-three half-Korean/half-Jew ex-friend named John Perry began stalking him. Of course, one would never suspect this while watching Men in Orbit, which makes Lurie seem like a sort of exceedingly extroverted and buffoonish hipster party boy that loves nothing more than indulging in McDonalds and LSD with his friends. Indeed, the film hardly seems like it was created by an artist of any sort, as it is essentially an absurdly amateurish homevideo that feels like it was created solely to entertain the director's hipster friends. In terms of political messages, the film makes a fairly passive attempt to mock NASA and mainstream America’s Cold War obsession with the Space Race of 1955 through 1972, though I suspect Lurie would agree with his Hebraic hipster ‘spiritual father’ Norman Mailer when he wrote, “the real mission of the Wasp in history was not, say, to create capitalism, or to disseminate Christianity into backward countries. […] It was to get the U.S. to the moon” (of course, one could much more easily argue that, as noted at the end of Uncle Adolf's Bavarian bohemian junky poet mentor Dietrich Eckart's classic posthumously published pamphlet Der Bolschewismus von Moses bis Lenin: Zwiegespräch zwischen Hitler und mir (1925) aka Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: Dialogues Between Hitler and Me, the real mission of the Jews in history is to destroy the world via the atom bomb and class warfare, among other things). Probably one of only a handful of people in the world that has the racially schizophrenic distinction of being both half Hebrew and half Welsh, Lurie still manages to look and act quite like his frog buddy Mitchell in Men in Orbit to the point where the viewer might confuse the two while watching the film. Despite being ostensibly brilliant and cultivated neo-beatniks tripping on the supposedly creativity-inspiring drug of LSD (which certainly acted as an inspiration to right-thinking writers like Ernst Jünger and Aldous Huxley), the two would-be-iconoclasts strangely manage to not say a single eloquent, intelligent, or insightful thing during the entire film, thereupon making them seem like the all the more stupid and swarthy fathers of Beavis and Butt-head (of course, at least the latter two are devoid of pretense and have at least a tad bit of good old-fashioned prole charm and wit). 

 To write a detailed synopsis of Men in Orbit would be patently pointless, as the film is mainly comprised of the two leads, who seem hopelessly in love with one another and their own imagined witticisms, sitting in their big boy toy spacecraft and doing such marvelously mundane things as shaving, slurring words, giggling like preschool girls, pointlessly bickering with ‘Mission Command,’ and eating greasy McDonalds hamburgers in a slob-like fashion that would most certainly deeply offend modern-day hipsters, who tend to like to wear the coveted ‘good guy badge’ of partaking in veganism. Admittedly, I think it is most fitting that Lurie and Mitchell’s ‘inebriation’ seems to begin to peak after takeoff  and especially once the two vaguely delightful dullards have reached outer-space. When engaging in messy verbal diarrhea while in orbit, the two men spend more time heckling ‘Mission Control’ (Michael McClard) than admiring the view. In fact, the two autistic astronauts probably spend most of their times giggling like a Mexican schoolgirl whose brother just touched her nipple. In between shoving McDonalds hamburgers down their throats that they have hanging from a wall next to their seats in the cockpit of their spacecraft, Lurie and Mitchell also engage in ‘avant-garde shaving’ to ostensibly demonstrate they are real men who do real manly things. Of course, no film featuring John Lurie would be complete without the musician playing an instrument in an obscenely obnoxious fashion that is bound to alienate and/or inspire Fremdscham in most viewers. Indeed, while Lurie strums his git-fiddle in a merrily lackluster fashion, Mitchell delivers his most humorous dialogue when he ironically sings, “America is really great…I like Texas, that’s where I come from.” Via TV monitor, the boys also talk to their discernibly homely ‘wives’ (played by their then-real-life girlfriends Becky Johnston and Mary Lou Fogarty) in a manner that resembles a couple people plagued with ‘trisomy 21’ (which would most certainly be a great name for their spacecraft) attempting to flirt with one another. Strangely, after talking to their spouses, Lurie remarks, “I’m not sure if I want to go back or not” and his comrades concurs, replying,“I’m not sure myself either.” Towards the end of the film, Lurie states in an overtly tongue-in-cheek fashion while smoking and eating junk food, “We’re going to spend these last days of space as relaxed as possible.” Unfortunately, Lurie and Mitchell’s spacecraft does not pull a Space Shuttle Columbia style disaster in the end, which would have been the perfect way to conclude such a chaotic film. 

 As Andrea Callard would note in her introduction to her interview with John Lurie in regard to Men in Orbit and how the original print of the film is presumed forever lost, “It was not unusual in the 70s for Super 8mm filmmakers to cut and edit their original footage, handle it many times, then screen the results using unpredictable projectors, without ever making prints or video copies. Keeping track of everything one made did not seem so important at the time. One just moved on to the next compelling idea.” Indeed, Lurie’s film, like many contemporary consumer goods, looks like it was made to be disposed of after only a few uses, yet it somehow lives on today, which is quite possibly the most strange thing about it (it should be noted that a number of classic No Wave films are either completely unavailable or assumed lost). In fact, Lurie seems so proud of the film that he actually went so far as to have it taken down from YouTube after filing a copyright claim, thus more than hinting that he no longer subscribes to the ‘no bullshit’ punk-beatnik ethos of his youth. I can only assume that Lurie is somewhat of a hypocrite as he stated in his somewhat recent interview with Collard regarding Men in Orbit, “It was great back then. It was all energy and ideas. There was no concern for money or credit. It was really pretty wonderful. Very soon after that everything changed for the worse.” Of course, Lurie should probably feel lucky that there are actually foolish people out there like myself who would dare to watch such a remarkably retarded piece of painfully schlocky Super-8 sub-twaddle. Notably, when asked in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine how he came up with the idea to shoot a sci-fi film in his apartment and how it was to act while high on LSD, Lurie got a little bit pissy and stated like a true art fag queen, “How did you come up for the idea is a question that really baffles me. Acting on LSD is not acting at all, is more the capturing of a weird event. Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter once on LSD but it is not something I would recommend to young actors take to improve their performance.” Indeed, “a weird event” is probably a good way to describe Men in Orbit, as it is hard to fathom that such a work was not only made, but is also still championed by the sort of shameless cultural parasites that like hanging out a modern art museums where images of erect horse cocks and unclad bull-dykes with mega-bushes are passed off as art. Considering that musician Arto Lindsay (who not surprisingly played guitar in Lurie and his brother Ethan's jazz group The Lounge Lizards) once described it as, “one of the best movies ever made on the Lower East Side,” one must just assume that the film is simply one of the most longwinded inside jokes ever made, though I doubt Lurie intended to make it at the expense of both the No Wave scene and himself, which it ultimately accomplishes. 

 When everything is said and done, Men in Orbit ultimately proves to be a more tolerable experience than Lurie’s Jap-produced proto-reality-TV series Fishing with John (1991), as it is short and almost sweet and thankfully does not feature the Stranger Than Paradise (1984) star engaging in the pointless platitudes that he is arguably best known for. Additionally, the sci-fi featurette benefits from featuring an original quasi-punk and noise soundtrack as opposed to the sort of aesthetically aberrant avant-garde jazz music that one typically expects from proud negrophile Lurie. Indeed, arguably the greatest thing about watching Men in Orbit is that, if one did not know better, the viewer would probably assume that Lurie is the sort of guy that likes drinking cheap beer while watching football and Girls Gone Wild videos as opposed to being a pathologically posturing neo-beatnik whose greatest contribution to film is being a mensch that has the dubious talent of looking simultaneously intricately bitchy yet pretentious in most of his major acting roles.  A work that might be best described as a heterosexual hipster low-camp take on science fiction that semi-succeeds in it's assumed objective of attempting to make space-travel seem hopelessly banal, the film ultimately seems like it features the most real and vulnerable depiction of Lurie to date, which is no small accomplishment considering that he seems like a fairly impenetrable guy.  In that sense, LSD certainly seems to have some benefits, as it forced two of NYC's most perennially posturing and image-obsessed hipsters, Lurie and Mitchell, to take off their carefully constructed masks and do more than leaning against a wall while looking so tragically forlorn like they do in most of their acting roles.  A stupendously stupid piece of passive-aggressive NASA-parodying, Men in Orbit is to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) what the scribblings of Anton LaVey are to the philosophical hammering of Friedrich Nietzsche, as a cheap carny-esque sub-bastardization that does not even touch the surface of its progenitor yet still makes for a fleetingly entertaining experience. Of course, one of the film's greatest attributes is that Lurie—a hardly productive half-Hebrew hipster—is the ultimate anti-Faustian man and thus the idea of him becoming a brave astronaut is about as likely as Haiti becoming a world power or Austrian avant-garde Peter Kubelka directing a feature-length film with a linear plot and starring mainstream Hollywood actors. 

-Ty E

1 comment:

Tony Brubaker said...

I want to tit-fuck Pauline Hickey (as the bird was in 1985 when the bird was 17, not as the middle-aged slag is now obviously).